Mystical tradition rich in female metaphors
Of all the many metaphors Jesus used of himself, the most daring are those he chose from the animal nature and the world of vegetation.
He employs maternal imagery to refer to himself: "How often have I longed to gather your children as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings ..." (Matthew 23; Luke 13). Or: "I am the vine; you are the branches" (John 15;5).
Christians aware of these animal and vegetative metaphors chosen by Jesus to describe himself will look with new respect on similar metaphors widely typical of, for example, Hinduism and aboriginal religions. Such usage does not ascribe fully divine status to the images, as Christians have often prejudicially assumed, labelling them dismissively as evidence of degraded and bizarre polytheism.
Taking its lead from Jesus, the Christian mystical tradition is rich in female metaphors for God. Hear the third century theologian Clement of Alexandria, who goes so far as to mix his metaphor when he alludes to "the Father's loving breasts," from which we draw "the milk of the Father."
In the eleventh century, Anselm, monk and archbishop of Canterbury, later to be included among the doctors of the church, wrote: "And thou, sweet Jesus Lord, art thou not also a mother? Truly, thou art a mother, the mother of all mothers, who tasted death in thy desire to give life to thy children."
He was followed by several twelfth century Cistercian monks who often referred to "Mother Jesus," and the remarkable thirteenth century St. Hildegard of Bingen and St. Bonaventure, Franciscan friar and cardinal later proclaimed doctor of the church along with St. Albert the Great.
The fourteenth century saw the flowering of this insight with Meister Eckhart, O.P. teaching that "we are all meant to be mothers of God for God is always needing to be born," and supremely Julian of Norwich. She wrote: "As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother." And again: "Our true Mother Jesus, he alone bears us for joy and for endless life ... So he carries us within him in love and travail ..."
As Denise Nowakowski Baker comments in her book Julian of Norwich's Showings: From Vision to Book, "This androgynous imaging of God as Father and Mother is significant in Julian's re-conception of 'the essential self as the complete humanity of male and female, body and soul.'"
The Eastern Church is well represented in this understanding by the fourteenth century Greek Orthodox mystic-theologian St. Gregory Palamas who wrote: "Christ ... nurses us from his own breast, as a mother, filled with tenderness, does with her. babies."
Of course, the roots of this long tradition grow from the Hebrew Bible, especially from the prophet Isaiah who wrote of Israel's deliverance: "These are the words of the Lord who is God" ... "now I groan like a woman in labour, panting and gasping ... Have no fear, for I have redeemed you; I call you by name; you are mine." (Chapters 42, 43) Or again, "Like a son comforted by his mother, will I comfort you." (Chapters 66; 13)
The tradition is alive and well among us today. When in Rome, reporting on Pope John Paul II's election daily for a Vancouver radio station, I heard a taped homily of John Paul I in a bookshop on the Via della Conciliazione. He said in his native Italian: "God is our Father, but even more, God is our Mother."
Pope John Paul II made the tradition his own when in 1999 he referred to "God the Mother" in an address to pilgrims. His words: "The hands of God hold us up, they hold us tight, they give us strength. But at the same time, they give us comfort--they console and caress us. They are the hands of a father and of a mother at the same time."
The reappearance of female and maternal imagery for God today is a welcome and needed antidote to the overly male appropriation which has grown to predominate in the church, because we have neglected our more balanced tradition. Many of us rejoice in this enrichment of our faith and prayer and yearn for its practical application in church structures and ministry. A new day is dawning.